Saturday, March 06, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 44

Individual Rights 3: Nietzsche weighs in. While re-reading Nietzche’s Twilight of the Idols, I found old Fritz making the same point I’ve been trying to make in recent posts. Consider the following passage:

One chooses dialectic [i.e., logic, “reason”] only when one has no other means. One knows that one arouses mistrust with it, that it is not very persuasive. Nothing is easier to erase than a dialectical effect: the experience of every meeting at which there are speeches proves this. It can only be self-defense for those who no longer have other weapons. One must have to enforce one’s right: until one reaches that point, one makes no use of [dialectic].


Now it’s important not to take this passage out of context. Nietzsche is not attacking logic, but merely the misuse of logic. Logic is a tool of knowledge; it is not a psychological or political force. Anyone who is reduced to arguing for their rights demonstrates merely that they lack the ability to enforce their rights. And rights without force are completely useless.

Nietzsche also warned against the use of high-level abstractions:

The other idiosyncrasy of philosophers is no less dangerous; it consists of confusing the last and the first. They place that which comes at the end—unfortunately, for it ought not to come at all—namely, the “highest concepts,” which means the most general, the emptiest concepts, the last smoke of evaporating reality, in the beginning, as the beginning.


The “last smoke of evaporating reality” indeed! When you build arguments out of such broad abstractions, you end up missing important details. This is precisely what happens when Objectivists argue about rights. One Objectivist, recently quoted in the comments section of my last post, insisted that a denial of individual rights “usually leads to suffering, and yes, often to death, alas.” Now this statement is clearly an exaggeration. A complete denial of rights (e.g. complete and abject slavery) may lead to an increased mortality rate, but that is little different than saying it leads “often” to death. But even if the statement were true, it still does not make for a convincing argument, because it fails to distinguish between those who are enslaved and die and those who gain by the slavery and live. The question is: how does one convince those who gain by the slavery that what they are doing is immoral? What persuasive reasons can there be? That the enslavers would be “better off” if they didn’t enslave people? Well, unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case. History is replete with examples of individuals who benefited from slavery over a long life. A rather horrible version of slavery existed under the Roman Republic and later under the Roman Empire; yet Rome, in both its republic and imperial incarnations, lasted for centuries; and many a Roman slave holder lived to a ripe old age. If one were to argue that political orders based on slavery eventually disintegrate into anarchy and bloodshed, well, that is true of all political orders, whether based on slavery or not. If, taking a different tack, one argues that society as a whole, including the slave-holders, will be “better off,” economically, without slavery, again this argument is too abstract to be convincing. In the first place, there is no guarantee that each particular slave-holder will in fact be economically “better off.” If you are slave-holder and living high off the hog, wouldn’t it be safer to keep things as they are? But even more to the point, what if the slave holder is not interested in being “better off” economically? What if he likes nothing more than to boss people around? There are people like that. Such people can’t be changed through logic and arguments. What does Objectivism propose to do about these people, when they dominate within the ruling elite (as they often do)? Go on strike? Good luck with that.

The power hungry individual, the man who gets his jollies from forcing other people to obey and respect him, constitutes one of the great obstacles to creating a stable, long-lasting free society. Objectivism tries to minimize the threat of this individual by caricaturizing him as weak or dependent, like the villains of Atlas Shrugged. Objectivists accuse such people of living like animals. Such men are “evil”; their way of life, Objectivism implies, leads to death. But again, Objectivists are arguing on the basis of abstractions that are too broad, and hence miss important details. Let us assume for argument’s sake that the power hungry individual who wishes to dominate other people will likely not live as long as individuals who respect the rights of others and who have no interest in power. If this assumption is true, would this justify Rand’s contentions that dictators are evil?

Not necessarily. Consider the following moral test. Suppose an individual has two choices: (1) he can live until he is 80 as an unimportant individual under a free and prosperous social order; or (2) he can live until he is 40 as a dictator enjoying nearly anything he wants, including wealth, women, power, etc. Now it’s mere sophistry to suggest that anyone who chooses (2) is choosing death. They are not choosing death at all: they are choosing a shorter life that enables them to achieve their values. For hardly anyone regards life as an ultimate value, but merely as a means of achieving what they in fact value. Rand’s attempt to base morality on life is a mere rationalization.

For better or worse, there are people out there who would gladly sacrifice forty years of their lives in order to live high off the hog, bossing people around and having access to the most attractive women. To say that such people are choosing “death,” or “living like animals” is merely to engage in impotent name calling. The Stalins, the Hitlers, and the hordes of other dictators and rights violaters are not going to vanish because Rand and her followers call them names.

6 comments:

Xtra Laj said...

Greg,

While I understand where you are headed and agree generally with the thrust of what you are saying, I think that your criticism doesn't accommodate the fact that sometimes, "dialectic" is more effective than Nietzche makes out. Sometimes, dialectic can open the mind to things that it refuses to see, making it come to terms with facts that can arouse sympathetic passions that counter those passions agitating for conflict.

Also, in modern times, there is the public arena where judgment can sometimes be harsh and unforgiving and even largely unscrupulous individuals can play to the gallery to reduce the criticism they face in the court of public opinion.

To summarize: the resort to dialectic, in modern times if not during the times of Nieztche, can be quite effective.

Anonymous said...

Well I don't know much about the dialectic, but I know there is the Hegelian variety, where idea influence society and the Marxist dialectic where society influences ideas. I agree with the later :), but isn't the Hegelian one entering into the realms of the mystic? Where ideas just pop into our minds like magic?

Steven Johnston

Jim said...

Xtra,

Nietzche's point is that dialectic can result in reductio absurdum, either reducing highly complex arguments into oversimplified ideas or by posing a thesis and antithesis which do not truly represent the opposites of a dichotomy, but instead limit the audiences perspective (take the health care debate as an example - nobody dares mention the corruption at the FDA or the medical-industrial complex).

I find interesting, though, that Rand takes highly complex arguments set forth by subjectivist philosophers such as Kant, reduces them to their most infantile, immature form, then goes on to use that reduction in a sort of dialectic in which her idea is set against her own watered down interpretation of the philosophy just mentioned. She is guilty of both crimes which Nietzsche denounces.

Rand was incredibly intelligent and was able to identify the shortcomings a the poorly developed, fundamentalist liberalism which plagued her time, but her inability to reach into the realm of the subjective - a realm where there is no given reality - makes her seem foolish to those who cannot separate her genius from her arrogance.

Xtra Laj said...

Jim,

Thanks. My point is that such an attempt to frame a debate in narrower or less complicated terms *can* be effective, especially for an ignorant audience, or for one that is blind to certain facts and is made aware of them by the dialectic presented.

gregnyquist said...

Jim: "Nietzche's point is that dialectic can result in reductio absurdum, either reducing highly complex arguments into oversimplified ideas or by posing a thesis and antithesis which do not truly represent the opposites of a dichotomy"

True, that is one of Nietzsche's key points, but that is actually not the point he is addressing in the passage quoted. Nietzsche is taking aim, not at Hegel's caricature of dialectic, but at the pure source of it, Socrates. Nietzsche's main point is not whether dialectic is over-simplified or not, but what it reveals about the person who makes use of it as a tool of manipulation. He's suggesting that Socrates uses dialectic because Socrates is weak and decadent: he doesn't have any stronger tools at his disposal, for if he did, he would make use of those tools, rather than dialectic.

gregnyquist said...

Laj: "My point is that such an attempt to frame a debate in narrower or less complicated terms *can* be effective"

That's right, but rather than contradicting Nietzsche, it supports Nietzsche. Nietzsche is not attacking dialectic because it over-simplifies (he does that elsewhere, but not here). He's attacking it as a means of persuasion/manipulation/power. "Real" dialectic (i.e., reasonings that actually are logical) are ineffective as means of persuasion because people don't find logical arguments convincing, particularly when they contradict their core sentiments and interests. Debates framed in less complicated terms are effective, not mainly because of the varnish of logic that might be spread over them, but primarily because of the sentiments and interests that they appeal to. In other words, just as Nietzsche suggests: dialectic arouses mistrust precisely because it doesn't appeal to the "instincts" (Nietzsche's word for "sentiments").